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The Narcissistic Politician

How politics forge narcissistic pathology

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. 

George Orwell

The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Why would someone want to lead a congregation, or a city - not to mention a state or a nation?  Politicians may well have much to give. I won’t take that away from our leaders. But, what do we know about why some strive to lead? What predisposes someone to believe that he or she can do better than others, so much so that they’re willing to take the heat and competition

There has to be a healthy dose of self assuredness and bravado. And, for some, maybe a touch of narcissism as well.

The Road to Narcissism:

What predisposes people to narcissism?  

  • Some people experience severe and significant deprivation in early life.  They may look to compensate with success in the arts, money, power or fame.  This is not uncommon and can be a noble calling. A person rises from pain and feels compelled to succeed. This becomes narcissistic when she’s willing to hurt others to achieve her ends. The urgency of success is desperate and others better get out of the way.
  • Others develop a need for validation like a drug addict needs drugs – without end.  He may have had good parents who tried to give the love he needed, but it was never enough.  (Example: Johnny’s greatest injury was when his kid brother was born.)
  • Still others have a constitutional tendency to see others as objects to serve their needs. It is difficult for them to truly identify with another person; their own needs are too demanding.  Narcissists often fail to truly care about others unless something’s in it for them (Healthy narcissism is found in young children and some people never grow out of it.)  
  • Interestingly, about five percent of people with Bipolar Disorder have NPD.  Without question, the mood swings of Bipolar Disorder affect a person's sense of self. But, unlike the typical narcissisist, the inflation of self in mania or hypomania is replaced by a more sober and negative sense of self when the Bipolar's mood cycles down. In contrast, Narcissists tend to stay entitled and expoitative - when upset they can convert to vindictive and angry.  There's little doubt that a lifetime of Bipolar instability can forge a personality that is defensive, easily offended and exploitative; and some may end up Bipolar with narcissistic traits. A politician may fit the bill.

The road to narcissism can often involve one or more of the above.

Fame & Narcissism:

Who holds really wealthy or beautiful people to normal standards – or professional athletes for that matter?  Accountability is required for relationships. And, if we let people act like the world revolves around them, we do them no favors. No one is more “special” than another, yet, with enough push and talent, we let certain people off the hook when they let us down.

Look at your own life. There’s probably someone who gets away with murder, and is untouched by criticism. Some of those people are attracted to politics.  

A Case to Consider:

The Chris Christie "bridge scandal" brings up some issues that are associated with narcissism. I would not consider myself an expert on Mr. Christie nor his psychology, but sticking close to the story brings up the possibility of narcissistic thinking that may not be in his interest. Mr. Christie’s job at this point is to assess what happened and change the culture that nurtured this behavior.

1.  I doubt that Chris Christie consciously allowed his staff to punish a rival by blocking the George Washington Bridge.  But, I would not be surprised if Christie’s fame fostered a sense that he and his staff could do no wrong. It is called grandiosity. Mr. Christie should ask himself if he assumed that if he trusted someone, then that person must be trustworthy. Not so…a boss has to supervise his staff. I hope that Mr. Christie has learned this lesson.

2.  Payback has no place in adult life. It is something found in the school yard. But, in politics it can be a standard. When an entitled person feels wronged, they are often outraged and want revenge. They can’t help it. Their need for validation is so intense that the experience of the opposite – rejection – hurts. And when wounded, they hit back.

3.  Humiliation hurts. When caught, Mr. Christie was deflated. This is good. For a moment he is the emperor without clothes. He found himself exposed, because he was responsible for his staff’s actions, and he knows it. I like the way Mr. Christie suffered, not because I am angry with him, but because it shows the potential for remorse. Maybe Mr. Christie can learn something useful. After all, he may well not be a narcissist. But, the position of power may have provoked narcissism that will not serve him or us going forward.

Just to be fair, self centeredness is not exclusively a Republican problem. Bill Clinton thought he was above politics by having relations with an intern in the Oval Office (upsetting).  Nancy Pelosi is reported to have told colleagues not to take the time to read her health care bill, because she was so anxious to have it passed (frightening). Anthony Weiner felt above reality by exposing his privates on line (puzzling). On the Republican side, George Bush is reported to have called himself The Decider (disappointing).

And, now Democrats and the press will be salivating to push Christie off his pedestal.  Those who will be accusing him of bullying may be as entitled and grandiose as anything that we’ve seen from New Jersey.  Politics attracts this disease.

Are we going to see yet another leader falter from a thousand little cuts?

Or, will Mr. Christie learn something from this debacle; something life changing.

Real Greatness:

In our culture we associate greatness with fame, power or wealth.

I believe that this is immature of us. Greatness can be private. In fact, most great acts are private. A man with Cerebral Palsy overcomes his disability. A mother who was abused as a child raises a wonderful family.  A kid in school takes on a bully in order to protect a vulnerable friend.  In our culture of fame, we are told to look up to the rich and accomplished.  It’s a good lesson to remember that the famous are not better than we are – just more public. Each of us has a sacred journey that counts.

My message to Mr. Christie is not to lose hope or courage.

(To be fair, I would have said the same thing to Mr.Clinton after the Lewinsky affair.) 

Injury and payback has no dignity and Christie’s staff reportedly did a terrible thing.  But, we are all human, and greatness is measured in how we respond to these moments. Mr. Christie must look at what happened objectively and figure out if grandiosity or narcissism played a role in his staff’s attitude.  If so, it starts from the top. Soul searching can lead to better management skills and the humility that only time and pain can bring.

Humility carries power.

We could use a lot more of it in politics.

 

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Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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